• The Contextual Issue
    The Contextual Issue
    Bathouse

    Learning the Hard Way

    Sometimes teachers are the ones who exploit you most.

    I turned my first trick accidentally. I was perched on the steps of the train station after geometry class, eating a sandwich, when he approached me. He raised the brim of his bill cap high enough to reveal a manicured goatee. “60?” he asked curtly. I looked at my sandwich. “That seems kind of steep,” I said, lifting it in the air. “You can just have some.” The man chuckled. It became clear he wanted 60 for a quickie. I didn’t have to think about it long before saying yes. I washed dishes in a deli; 60 dollars seemed like a lot. I told him I didn’t want to have butt sex. He asked me how old I was. “18,” I lied. 

    I wrapped my sandwich in its paper and walked him back to my father’s apartment. He blew me on the sofa. I sat on his face. I remember enjoying it, going flush, looking down on his abdomen while he wedged his head further between my legs.     

    After he zipped up his pants he set three 20s on the coffee table. He put a finger under my chin and told me, boldly, that if I was going to turn tricks I had to remember: (1) not to turn them at my house, (2) always to ask to see the money first, and (3) to tell your tricks they were good in bed even if they weren’t. While I don’t think it’s advisable to tell a sex worker how to do their job, I thought that if I didn’t learn the ropes nominally I would probably learn them the hard way. So I took his advice. 

    I didn’t see him again for two years. By then I’d claimed a little piece of concrete between a bathhouse and an all-night diner. I’d post up there with my friend Krish on the weekend. We’d chain smoke cigarettes until bar close. Then we’d watch the drunks as they filed out. Sometimes he’d snare one. Sometimes I would. Then we’d part ways without ceremony.

    When the man with the goatee approached us I couldn’t tell who he wanted. I thought he wanted both of us. He looked red-faced and itchy. He didn’t look at me, but immediately went into it with Krish. Krish crimped his arms, holding his cigarette loosely at his temple, almost cupping his ear. I looked away as they continued exchanging inaudible mutterings. Then the man produced a red pencil bag made of vinyl. He opened it. Krish lit up. In a moment the three of us were walking down the street together. 

    I wasn’t sure what I had agreed to, but I would have followed Krish almost anywhere. He was four years my senior. He taught me that when a client leaves their cash in their car they probably don’t have any and that it’s more dangerous to steal from other hookers than it is to steal from johns. He taught me that intuition wasn’t something with which you were born, or could even develop, but that it was a symptom of getting yourself into stupid situations. “When you’re in a car with someone who wants to kill you,” he used to say, “you’ll know.” 

    I followed behind them, laughing at the jokes I couldn’t hear them exchange. I wondered what they were going to do with me until we walked through the doors of the bathhouse. I was ancillary. The man with the goatee flashed his membership card towards a gatekeeper sitting behind an aluminum grate. The gatekeeper leaned forward and looked at Krish and I. Then the man with the goatee emptied his pockets to pay our entry fees. He couldn’t afford a locker, so as we ascended the staircase I was handed jackets, shirts, wallets, and keys. They kept the pencil bag. 

    They disappeared down a dark hall and I made my way to the smoking room. The smoking room couldn’t have been much larger than 10'×10'. It had several vending machines with poppers, douches, condoms, and lube. There was a ventilator in the corner above a lamp  and two soft chairs against the far wall, the kind you might find in a college dormitory. Near the vending machines was a long black bench that looked like a church pew. I stashed everyone’s stuff under my chair so the staff wouldn’t see it. Hiking my towel up to my navel I grabbed a couple magazines, sat down, and began page turning vigorously. I wasn’t reading the magazines, I was just going through the motions of reading. At the far end of the pew bench was an older man with one large silver earing. “You have lovely legs,” he said. Thanks,” I replied. “Did you come here alone?” he asked. “No,” I said, “I came with friends.” “Well where are they?” he asked. “They’re smoking meth in the glory hole booths,” I replied. “Well, what do you know?” “Apparently nothing,” I said.

    By Krish’s definition, the intuition unfolds every time you fuck up. No matter what guidelines got passed down to me, I never learned more about hustling than when I was getting hustled. I continued to run into mentors who exploited me or led me astray, or tricked me for their personal gain, but I’m still left wondering if this was any indication of them not having my back. According to the Upanishads, guru literally means disperser of shadows. So while I’m sure some kindergarten teachers do what they do out of the goodness of their hearts, I’m also sure some do it for a paycheck. I imagine this doesn’t make them any less of a teacher. 

    There was a man once who tied me up in a hotel room, stuffed a sock in my mouth, and video taped the expression on my face as he told me that I wasn’t going home, that night or ever. At the time I thought I was lucky to have intuited that he didn’t want to kill me. Of course, I wasn’t lucky; I had merely known it the moment I got into his car.

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